A Conversation With Jeri Moomaw

Jeri Moomaw. Courtesy photo

Jeri Moomaw, the founder and executive director of Innovations Human Trafficking Collaborative, based in Olympia, Washington, will be a presenter during two events this week at Stony Brook Southampton aimed at eliminating human trafficking. Having been personally impacted by this issue, Ms. Moomaw now has made it her goal to “foster unity and collaboration to end human trafficking because we have to all be in this together.”

How pervasive is this problem?

Data isn’t as great as it should be but I do know that on an international scope, they estimate that it is a $150.2 billion per year industry. That is from a 2016 report from the Department of Justice. That is bigger than eBay, Nike and Google combined. That would include both labor and sex trafficking and it is international. When we look at some of the pervasiveness in the state of New York, really the only data we have comes from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In 2017, there were 333 confirmed cases reported in New York, and there were 870 calls reporting or asking for services. Out of that 870, there were 445 that had high indicators of trafficking.

Is it an issue here on Long Island’s East End?

It is. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any research or data specific to the area, but human trafficking and criminal operations including gangs go hand-in-hand. I read a report estimating there are between 500 to 1000 gang members in Suffolk County, includes MS-13 and the Bloods, and we also have to look at the influence of the opioid epidemic that is hitting Long Island and the East End pretty hard. The opioid epidemic goes hand-in-hand with human trafficking because oftentimes traffickers will use drugs to control their victims.

What are common misconceptions about human trafficking?

One would be that human trafficking is only for [people] that are being shipped over in shipping containers and being sold into labor trafficking or sex trafficking. That does happen, but what we really see an issue with is American-born victims. This is something that not only happens to foreign born victims being brought over, but this is something happening in our own back yard to our own children and our own people. The second misconception is that all sex trafficking happens to women or girls. It can happen to any gender, and males are less likely to report. The third thing is that victims will self identify. Oftentimes this is not the case because they have been systematically taught that they can’t trust authority. Many believe they are willing participants because they have been manipulated or brainwashed, but under federal and state law they would be human trafficking victims.

What kinds of activities can people attending the events this week expect? 

The evening event for the general public is only two hours and in that time you will be able to gain skills to understand what human trafficking is, red flags and indicators, who is at risk and vulnerable, trafficking operations and evidence based best practices to respond. The rundown and the format the next day will include understanding federal and state law on human trafficking, both sex and labor trafficking, where that can be found, red flags and indicators, identifying high risk populations, and how to respond, including learning evidence based best practices, and we are going to have case studies. The afternoon will be workshops around forming multidisciplinary teams and coming up with an action plan.

To what degree can everyday people make a difference?

I believe they can make a huge difference. If you see something and it doesn’t sit right with you, you need to say something. Suffolk County now has a human trafficking police unit. You can contact them. You can also contact the National Human Trafficking Police Hotline at (888) 373-7888 or the text line at BEFREE (233733). That will dispatch law enforcement and connect to resources in the area. The average citizen is such a vital part of this because historically people have just turned a blind eye, but now the consciousness is shifting. If you see something say something, because it can change a life.

Sponsored by The Retreat Inc., Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, the Shinnecock Community Health Worker Program, the Shinnecock Substance Abuse Mobilization Project, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons and the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, a public session on eliminating human trafficking is on Thursday, September 27, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Chancellor’s Hall at Stony Brook Southampton. On Friday, September 28, an all-day training session for health professionals, clergy, first responders, law enforcement, educators and legal professionals will run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include meals and snacks. Thursday’s session is free, while Friday’s workshop costs $35. Registration is online at humantraffickingli.eventbrite.com.